Family Matters

10.06.14 10:38 PM ET

The Pope vs. the Church on Family Values?

The synod underway in Rome will discuss divorce, birth control and same-sex marriage—and nobody’s really sure what Pope Francis will do.

VATICAN CITY— When Pope Francis opened the Extraordinary General Assembly Synod of Bishops to discuss the role of the family in the Catholic context on Sunday, he opened the biggest can of worms in his still-young papacy.  

It is expected to pit hard-core Catholic conservatives who prefer to hang on to the Church’s traditional doctrine on family matters against liberal Catholic clergy who would prefer to see a loosening of some of the rules, especially those that keep lapsed Catholics away in droves. The skirmishing here is expected to help define the battles in the even more important Ordinary Synod of Bishops scheduled for October 2015.

Of the 252 participants now gathered in Rome, 191 so-called Synod Fathers are eligible to vote on issues ranging from whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to take communion to whether annulments should be easier to obtain. 

Yes, birth control will be up for debate. Yes, even same-sex marriage will be discussed. In that sense there are no taboos, although virtually no one in the know expects any really dramatic breakthroughs. 

The non-voting participants will be invited to weigh in on the various topics — but their thoughts must be expressed in under four minutes.  Details of the internal discussions during the two-week meeting will be a closely guarded secret, with daily press briefings expected to be nothing more than a decoy to masque the impassioned debates going on inside.  

The synod executive secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, said that no transcript of the discussions will be released, and that participants’ names and positions on various issues will be kept confidential to avoid “making suspects” out of the participants.  The real news will come out of the sidelines, in the Vatican corridors and Rome restaurants where participants will be lobbying the key voters for support. 

When asked if tempers would flare, Baldisseri said "Only outside. There is one synod going on outside but another will be inside.” 

A questionnaire was sent to parishes across the world to develop the agenda. According to the document synthesizing responses the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics is of utmost importance, Baldisseri told reporters on Friday that this was not a “one issue synod” and that divorce would hardly dominate the two-week event.   

Indeed, the outline of topics to be discussed implies the Church understands it is pushing many Catholics — not just the divorced and remarried — away. As the document reveals, “The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking, that the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive.”

That the United States is a special problem for the Church is not a revelation, but for the Church to admit the reasons why in a document like this is important. “In North America,” it concludes, “people often think that the Church is no longer a reliable moral guide, primarily in issues related to the family, which they see as a private matter to be decided independently.”

The Catholic Church is fond of saying that women provide “peace and harmony” in families. If so, they won’t be bringing much of that to the synod. Here’s the breakdown on the voting members: 61 cardinals, one cardinal patriarch, seven patriarchs, 1 major archbishop, 67 metropolitan archbishops, 47 bishops, one auxiliary bishop, one priest —— all men. 

The nonvoters include 16 experts, eight fraternal delegates and 38 auditors of whom 12 are married couples. In the case of one of those couples the wife is Catholic and the husband is Muslim. But the other couples are mainly devout Catholics who toe the party line when it comes to birth control and divorce. 

Jeffrey Heinzen, for example, is the director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life in La Crosse, Wisconsin; his wife Alice is the natural-family-planning coordinator for the diocese there.  Steve and Claudia Schultz are executives of the International Catholic Engaged Encounter, which provides Catholic marriage counseling to couples. 

Some groups, like the influential Catholics for Choice say the omission of everyday Catholic families is a grave error. “The bottom line: it's unlikely any changes will be made to doctrine,” says the organization’s director Jon O’Brien. “The church misses out by failing to integrate the wisdom of the laity and Catholic families.”

Infighting among synod voters began earlier this month with a shot across the bow when a group of cardinals published a book outlining why the synod voters and the Church “must not” bend the rules on the sacrament of communion. The book, called Remaining in the Truth of Christ on Marriage and the Catholic Church, comes down hard on Francis’s perceived leniency on the issue of communion and marriage.  

Speaking to Vatican expert John Allen for the Boston Globe’s Catholic website Crux, American Cardinal Timothy Dolan implied he won’t be supporting any changes that would challenge doctrinal teaching. “Personally, I don’t see how there could be [a dramatic change] without running up against the teaching of the Church,” he said. “What I hope the synod does instead is look at the bigger picture, figuring out ways to reintroduce people to the romance and adventure of a faithful, loving marriage.”

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That’s a tall order for the 191 men who’ve never been married to a member of the opposite or, for that matter, the same sex, even if they have four-minute snippets of advice from a few carefully vetted couples. 

The purpose of the synod is to provide counsel to Francis, who as Pope can do almost whatever he wants with the exception of making broad changes to doctrine or changing his job description as pope.  In fact there’s more than a little nervousness among the traditionalist clergy about just what sort of surprises Francis might spring on them.  "We don't expect that any great change will come out of this synod,” Baldissi told the press, “but with this pope all we can say is that we don't know."

The conventional wisdom in Rome is that he’ll be, if not restrained, then constrained by Church doctrine. “There are limits to the papacy. He's not God, after all," as the late Jesuit theologian Francis Sullivan once told priests at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long headed by Francis’s predecessor (and once known as the congregation of the Inquisition) doctrine can never be changed because it is the “perceived truth” of the Church, and “known truth cannot be changed.”

The synod can’t recommend a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, nor can it gloss over tenets of the church like “Catholic marriage is forever” and “sex is only for the purpose of procreation” so therefore birth control is not necessary.  

Francis has not-so-subtly implied that he believes that shepherds of the church should spend less time on moral issues that divide the church like abortion, birth control and divorce.  But Francis has also implied that his hands are tied when it comes to changing doctrine or altering church teachings. “The Church cannot be expected to change her position," he wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation: The Joy of the Gospel. "I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’” On the other hand, he made it clear he wants to resolve problems. 

Whatever the synod participants ultimately decide to recommend to the pope at the end of their two-week meeting, there is one certainty — someone will lose, whether it is Catholics hoping for a more forgiving Church or those who like the Church just the way it is.